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'We are having a challenge': Lifeguard shortage impacts pools in the St. Louis area

Every summer nationwide, 300,000 first-time lifeguards sign up. That didn't happen last year.

ST. LOUIS — A nationwide shortage of lifeguards is happening in the St. Louis area. 

BJ Fisher, the health and safety director for the American Lifeguard Association said this shortage happened before the COVID-19 pandemic, but we're really feeling the effects now.

The Reasons

Fisher said some of its lifeguards are J1 Visa workers coming from other countries.

But with COVID-19, thousands of lifeguards weren't able to do so this year because of travel restrictions.

The pandemic also prevented in-person training.

The certification is valid for two years, but people couldn't get that in-person recertification.

Plus, every summer nationwide, 300,000 first-time lifeguards sign up.

But last year, that couldn't happen.

Fisher said it'll take years to make up for the people it's lost. 

Another problem could happen in August. In years past, 20-30% of lifeguards head back to school or college for sports, which could impact pools in the hottest month of the summer.

Credit: KSDK

Making a splash for 59 years, Indian Hills Swim Club owner Sarah Houska said her grandparents established it in 1962.

Credit: Sarah Houska

With 20-plus years working here, she has dealt with her fair share of lifeguards.

"You can never have enough lifeguards," she said.

In February, she started interviewing applicants. 

Fortunately, she's stacked with 30 lifeguards right now for opening day Friday.

She wanted to make sure her pool was covered because this year, it's bumped up to over 500 memberships, compared to 400 in years past. 

But not everyone is so lucky.

A spokesperson with Lifetime Frontenac said it has enough staff to open to members and guests this weekend.

But they're not at full capacity, which is 40 to 50 lifeguards.

To recruit, it's offering training and a complimentary membership, which is over $150 a month.

Aquaport in Maryland Heights is also facing this problem. 

It's newly renovated with 65 lifeguards.

"We are having a challenge. We need about 85 to 100 to really make the facility work well, we don't want to burn out or lifeguards. We want to have enough to cover the hours we need," Adam Peper, Interim Parks and Recreation Director said. 

The city of St. Louis is also coming across this issue.

Two out of its three pools can't open because of that shortage.

Marquette Pool will open Saturday, but the schedule may be choppy depending on the amount lifeguards it has.

STL Youth Jobs is diving in to help the city.

"It's a summer youth employment with 15-24 years and we place them in job opportunities," Executive Director Hillary Frey said. "We were able to pair up with the mayor, so we can have all the pools signed up."

Businesses seeking to build their summer staff and young people (ages 15-24) seeking a summer job can all apply here.

Fisher said a solution is to increase pay, a sign-on bonus, or free training. Some places are already doing these things.

Fisher also adds with fewer lifeguards, parents need to be even more vigilant.

He's saying a "designated water watcher" or someone watching the children at all times can be a lifesaver.